Crowd-sourcing Across the Curriculum

The fall semester is approaching, and as that happens, I like to write entirely new writing assignments, or at least considerably revise those I’ve used before.  Because most of my job is reading and responding to student writing, I don’t like to repeat assignments semester after semester, if it can be helped.  It just makes my job a lot more interesting if I get to read not just new voices from new students, but also see how new assignments work.

Something I did recently is crowd-source an assignment.  One type of writing I always assign is strictly informative – that is, students report information without judgment, analysis, or any argument.  This, I believe, is an important stepping stone to then practicing judgment, analysis, and argument, but it is often skipped as we move on to those more complex strategies.  And, unfortunately, this assignment is sometimes written quite broadly, something like:

Choose a topic with which you have some familiarity.  Write an essay in which you report on that topic to an audience who is unfamiliar with it.

This assignment leaves students out to sea without a paddle, not to mention easily encourages plagiarism (why not just copy a Wikipedia entry?).

Although I think my own informative writing assignments are much more interesting than the above, I’ve nonetheless become bored with them, so I posted a status to Facebook asking for ideas.  Here’s what my friends and colleagues (click on their names to learn more about these impressive teachers) came up with in the span of about 12 hours:


You could do some kind of “ethnography” of facebook pages, or twitter feeds? as if it were a prospective employer putting together a report on a job candidate – here’s this person’s web presence, kind of thing?


Have you thought about an I-Search?


I like the idea of an ethnography, but my suggestion (preference) would be away from a digital ethnography and toward a place-based (material world) observational ethnography. I’ve used a similar assignment in fyc. You can have the students find an unfamiliar place on or off campus and sit for a specified period of time (1 hour, 90 minutes) and have them record observations and report those observations. This assignment may help first year students explore campus a bit. Also, if you want to tie it to their major, they can observe in an area connected to their major, even the department area of their major. The trick, as I see it, is getting them to focus on purpose–what is the point of the observation? But you can conceivably make the audience administrators or professors of the university who may be interested in what goes on around campus.


Social media is always a popular one. How about connecting the informative report topics to their major (even the undecided might have some leanings on what disciplinary areas they might want to pursue). So, the focus would be for each student to find out one piece of information about their prospective major at IUP. In order to obtain. This piece of information, they can use one of the possible sources, such as, department or program website, personnel such as faculty, upperclass(wo)men, or even a published literature.


In Eng 100 my students attend a campus event and report to other members of the class what they learned or did.


Is the focus the genre or the research experience? If the genre, then I vote for a current event or major or that thing you did at TD, learning more about the institution itself. I guess that last would require more types of research than reading, so maybe it would be a good one.


Another assignment I have been trying is to have them find three different recipes for making a Red Velvet cake and use them to write an informational report. It’s a fun way to teach them to quote, paraphrase, and synthesize information.


Another option could be a report on the most commonly used/provided sharing/aggregating sites such as redit, stumble upon, Pinterest, delicious, etc. An employer could ask for such a document when considering web presence options. Though the “about” links usually offer such information, students would be challenged to summarize, paraphrase, quote as needed, etc. I assume the goal of the assignment is to read, interpret, and explain in one’s own words.


I assigned a paper last year for which students picked a trend they noticed in public, observed it and took notes, then surveyed their friends/family about the trend and wrote up the results.

These are all fabulous ideas, each for their own reasons, but all because they are context-specific, audience-specific, and fulfill the purpose of learning to write informatively.  I can safely say I will use versions of all of these at some point in my teaching of writing, and they’ve definitely helped me to decide on a final version of what I’ll assign for informative writing this fall.

The takeaway is obvious regardless of the discipline in which you teach: if your students are struggling with the assignments you give them, if you’re bored with the assignments, if you just want a new perspective on something you’ve been teaching for a while — hit up social media!  Facebook is a gem in this way as is Twitter (lots of discipline-specific hashtags are out there as well as general #highered conversations).  If you’re not into social media, join listservs in your discipline and perhaps even consider the WAC listserv – the WAC list discusses writing in many disciplines – at this moment there’s a discussion of teaching writing in sociology courses.  There are many conversations going on about teaching writing in all disciplines.  And sometimes, if you start one (like I did), you get truly amazing results!

Listen and Learn (from other Faculty)

Last summer, in preparation for beginning my job as the director of WAC at IUP, I read pretty much every book or article I could get my hands on that described how to start a WAC program.  If you read these materials, you will without a doubt come away with the following message: if you’re starting a program or even coming into an existing one, your first job is to listen and learn.  This is probably good advice for any job, but in this position, it’s crucial.  Universities have cultures and politics that surround most everything.  You’d think it would be easy enough to say, “Students need to write more.  Teach writing in all classes from now on if you want your students to get jobs.  Now go off!”  But, it’s surprisingly difficult to get support for such a mandate (or, really, any mandate).  And, it’s important to remember: things happen slowly at educational institutions, and no one is expecting (or wanting) you to jump in and start changing things! (I should really tape that statement to the top of my computer monitor)

So, if one wants to implement a program that will make a more coordinated effort at spreading writing across the curriculum, one really needs to understand the culture and politics.  And there’s no better way to do that than to listen and learn from the students and the faculty.

I began by sending out a survey to faculty asking their perceptions of the students’ writing, their own teaching of writing, and the university’s support for faculty and student writers.  At the same time, I sent out a survey to graduating seniors to find out how they perceived their education as writers throughout their career at the university.  The faculty survey ended with a request for an email address where they could be reached if they were willing to be interviewed (next year I will be doing focus groups with the students).

I selected one faculty member volunteer from as many departments as I had offers, then contacted them to set up appointments.  For the last few weeks, I have been meeting with these faculty members to discuss their teaching of writing in their discipline.   I learned a lot about the writing culture here at IUP.  But even more importantly, I have learned some things from this process that I think are good take-aways for anyone seeking to implement more writing in their courses in any discipline.

Reasons why faculty should talk to other faculty about how they teach writing:

1) Faculty love to talk about their teaching methods.  If you ask, they will tell you.  They’ll also admit when they’re not happy with the way they do something, when they feel an area of their teaching needs strengthened.  These challenging areas provide great opportunity for collaboration.  Maybe you can help this teacher address the challenge.  Maybe you’re helping just by listening to the teacher describe the challenge!

2) You will learn about how writing happens in other places in the university.  This is useful information.  It can be illuminating when you wonder to yourself, “Why are my students writing this way?” – well, it’s because in their major field of study, that’s what they’re taught to do.  Becoming aware of the genres and criteria for writing in other disciplines can help you to help your students gain rhetorical flexibility – the ability to move between genres in different disciplines for different audiences and purposes.

3) You will get some great ideas!  This is the obvious take-away.  I don’t know that I’ve ever had a conversation with another teacher that didn’t result in gaining at least one smidgen of an idea that I could use in my own classroom.  But knowing what’s happening outside of the classrooms in my own department is even more interesting.  Even though we all have complete academic freedom to do what we wish in our courses, within the department you begin to see repetition of the same ideas and materials.  Getting outside of your own department can bring a fresh perspective!

No one is arguing that helping students to write effectively is getting harder and harder.  But we do often argue about who’s responsible.  My advice – walk across the quad.  Talk to your colleagues in other fields.  If you have a more well-rounded picture of what writing looks like as a whole at your institution, you will be better prepared to help your students  see how writing in your class fits into that whole picture.

Real Research for Real Audiences

Is your campus as cool as mine?  I absolutely LOVE when departments or schools showcase student academic work – after all, that’s why we’re all here!  At IUP, we’re celebrating Research Appreciation Week, which showcases research projects by undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty.  Now, as a newbie faculty member here, I didn’t know anything about this until about two weeks ago.  Had I known, I would have certainly incorporated it into my classes in some way.  Fortunately for me, a colleague is very involved, and she invited me to be a judge for both the undergraduate and graduate scholars forums.  I sat in on an undergraduate panel where students presented their research on art history, fine art, and autism education.  I also sat in on a graduate panel where students presented on fine art, gender studies, and history.

What a delight.  Seriously.  Not only were the panels interesting, I took away a lot about why these types of events are important and how they can help us as teachers of writing in any discipline and specifically as teachers of researched writing.

We need to go to these events, and here’s why:

1. Students need to know that faculty are supportive of their (students’) lives as academics.  Why are they doing all this work if even their teachers don’t appreciate it beyond just giving it a grade?  Students perceive many of us as interested only in our own scholarship.  This simply shouldn’t be so.  As great as I thought this event was, the turnout by faculty was abysmal.  This also simply shouldn’t be so.

2. There’s a lot to learn at these events that hs nothing to do with the actual presentation content,  including what students are writing about, how students are writing, and what types of writing are going on in other disciplines and classrooms around the university.  Personally, I’m not so interested in fine art, but I learned a lot about how students write about fine art by listening to these presentations.  It’s also not a bad place to figure out what you want and don’t want in your students’ writing – there are good and not-so-good presentations at any conference, and exposure to both is educational.

Faculty should encourage students go to these events for the same reasons.

We also need to encourage students to WRITE for these events, and here’s why:  Sure, not all of your students are going to become academics, so the need for polished presentable critical essays (supplemented by powerpoint slides) might not be necessary for them after college.  But why shouldn’t they be learning the importance of these skills as part of their college education, as part of what it means to participate in an academic environment?  It doesn’t matter what they’ll be doing after college – writing, articulating understanding, clear communication, conveying ideas, and debate are skills that will help them regardless of their career field.

If your campus doesn’t have an event like this, it should.  And if it’s just not feasible, why not create this type of forum in your classroom?  Provide opportunities for students to share their research in front of a real audience who might have real questions.  And of course, show that you have real interest.

Motivating Students Not to Fake It

Last month, my husband and I watched a CNBC ‘documentary’ called “Faking the Grade: Classroom Cheaters.” For a full hour (or was it two? – it was too long, regardless), we watched this sensationalist pseudo-journalism, complete with ominous music and images of dark alley homework exchanges and the fuzzed-out faces of youngsters gone wrong. Parents are blamed, electronics are blamed, the media is blamed – a lot of things are blamed for one major problem – apparently, cheating is an epidemic in this country (sort of like AIDS in Africa) – academia is referred to as “ground zero in the war against cheating.” Even worse, if you cheat when you’re young, it’s pretty much your destiny to cheat and lie your entire life. Look at your neighbor’s paper in fourth grade – deadbeat dad by twelfth.

The program goes on to show demonstrations of tools that can help teachers catch young cheaters red handed. A common tool is anti-plagiarism software, such as Turnitin. Teachers can submit student work (or have students do the submission) and TurnItIn will show how much of the paper is plagiarized, if any. Another tool demonstrated on the program included a pen that a teacher could place in his/her pocket; while walking around the classroom, the pen will alert the teacher if a student has a phone or electronic device currently in use. I’m not saying that students don’t cheat; but sometimes I wonder if all of these tools out there to ‘catch’ them might actually be, in part, helping to sustain the problem.

Neil Genzlinger also critiques the piece in the NYT, but his concern is more with the “lack of historical perspective” – this didn’t just start happening. As an educator, my concern is more with the messages that teachers give to students that might actually be motivating them to cheat . I’m concerned about the culture of mistrust that’s created when teachers assume students are going to cheat, and rather than try to create environments in which students want to learn rather than cheat, teachers spend their energy coming up with ways of trying to catch students in the act.

The problem with our educational culture is not that students are inherently evil liars and cheaters. The problem is when teachers design their classes around ‘catching’ students and policing their activity. Here’s an example. A few years ago, I was talking to a colleague about his frustration with students and quizzes. He gave pop quizzes after every reading assignment, and students always failed. When I asked him why he doesn’t announce the quizzes to motivate the students to do the reading, he said, “Then how am I supposed to catch them not doing the reading?” I think there are some teachers out there who feel it is part of their job to show their students that they (the teacher) will always have one up on them (the students). Here’s another example:

Barbara Christe, program director of biomedical engineering technology at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, says she usually catches three or four students a year with her Web “honey pots.” She sets up phony Web pages that specifically answer questions in her homework assignments and tests with blatantly out-of-date or inaccurate information. Because they are tailored for her course material, her sites typically show up first in Google searches. It’s easy then for Christe to snag those students who took the bait and simply cut and pasted information. Instead of automatically flunking the guilty students (who are typically freshmen), in most cases she tries to use the incidents as a chance to teach how to correctly vet a source. (

Although Professor Christe uses her ‘honey pots’ as teaching moments, I have to wonder a little bit about an educator who purposely sets traps for students to fall into, a person who tempts people to do the wrong thing. Why not just teach about source evaluation at the onset?

Here are some ways to avoid scenarios in which students feel like they should/can/need/want to cheat in classes that incorporate writing assignments:

(1) I only give open-notebook announced quizzes. Why? Because what I want is for students to do the reading and take some notes. I don’t want to catch them not doing the reading. The quiz then serves to reward those who took the time to do the work and as an additional review of what they learned, instead of serving as a penal tool. They learn from the reading, from the note-taking, from taking the quiz, from reviewing the quiz. That’s four times they’ve reviewed the material, instead of one time being caught and learning nothing.

(2) My students do a lot of the writing in class. This way, they have access to me for questions. They have access to each other for consultation. They turn in brainstorming and drafts. I become familiar with their written voices. I know when something isn’t theirs, and they know I will recognize it.

(3) I craft assignments that are nearly impossible to purchase online. My assignments are situated, local, and always ask students to engage their own thinking along with sources they use; they also ask students to write to a very specific audience (and it’s almost never me). A student cannot simply turn in an encyclopedic report on a topic. In this type of assignment, it is more work for the student to figure out a way to cheat than it is to simply do their own writing.

(4) I re-write my assignments and change the requirements every semester. Yes, it’s a little bit of work for me, but it means students can’t recycle work from others. Also, it keeps the reading fresh for me.

(5) I give a lot of low stakes work – assignments that are worth 5 or 10% of the grade. This sends the message that doing poorly on one of these assignments isn’t the end of the world – the stakes aren’t so high that a student panics and plagiarizes. When I was a freshman in high school, there was a huge controversy when several seniors at my school were caught cheating on the SATs (it was on the cover of the Wall Street Journal); these seniors were all headed to ivy league universities. Putting too much pressure on students causes panic, and panic causes bad decision making. It’s easy to make your class a place where panic does not ensue by providing lots of low stakes opportunities for students to succeed and fail without too much consequence.

I’m not saying I don’t have students who cheat. I do. But it is extremely rare. Because I follow these steps above, I rarely even think about it. It doesn’t even become a conversation in the classroom. This way, my students know I’m not out to get them – I’m only there to provide them opportunities to learn.

Who’s Afraid of the End-of-Semester?

This time of year, as finals week approaches, I hear constantly from my academic peers across the nation the sleepy, melancholiac sigh: “I can’t wait until the end of this semester.”  I see and hear it everywhere – Facebook posts, Tweets, in the hallways. Those who aren’t saying it are showing it with droopy eyes, bags overflowing with reams of tattered paper, and exasperated moments of confusion and disorientation: “Was I supposed to be at a meeting this morning?”  and “Sorry students, I graded all of your work but then left it on my desk at home.”

Although I admit I’m tired, I also really look forward to this time of year.   I usually cancel classes in order to hold individual conferences, and this is always a favorite part of my job.  I get to see my students really rise up; they bring me what they’re working on and they’re prepared with questions about how to improve it.  It’s crunch-time, yes, and they’re concerned about their grades, but for some of them, it’s also the first time I really get to see how their minds work as they talk about their own writing.   Students who I didn’t really get a chance to talk to this semester now receive individual attention; I don’t think even in this last week that it’s too late to teach them something in our few minutes together.  And, if I’m lucky, I get a few “thank you”s and/or some compliments about the course.  “I really learned something” – only one student has to say it for my heart to skip a little beat.

At this point, the last week of classes, I move everything on my current to-do list other than grading onto my Winter Break To-Do list.  This means that unless I have some grading to do and unless I have a student in my office, I actually have some free time.   This gives me a chance to do some reflection on just “what happened” this semester.  I look through my Evernotes and recall what I learned at meetings with colleagues, committee sessions, and professional development workshops.  I don’t stress about the future (that Winter Break To-Do list) or even think about my courses for the next semester.  I just try to remain present, in the now, mindful.

Of course, it helps that I’m not a huge procrastinator, I’m a Type A organizer/scheduler ,and I pretty religiously follow the five-minute rule, so I don’t have a thousand things on my to-do list.  But it also helps to remember that I enjoy teaching and I enjoy my students, and I want to enjoy these last few interactions I have with them.  Keeping that in mind really can help as we try to get through the stress of these last few days.


Real Researchers in Class

This semester, I have been teaching ENGL 360: Editing and Publishing.  It’s a career-prep course intended to introduce English majors to a variety of job possibilities in the fields of editing and publishing.  Although I have some experience in this area, my profession is teaching.  So, I decided to seek out some professionals in editing and publishing and have them come to class to speak about their careers.  We heard excellent talks from Deb Klenotic, the web content and social media editor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Zack Stiegler, communications media professor and expert on media law at IUP; Jennifer Bails, freelance writer and editor; and Luis Fabregas, reporter for the Tribune Review, author and self-publisher of A Transplant for Katy.

My students in 360 have told me numerous times how useful they’ve found these talks from real writers and editors.  And in our last presentation, from Luis Fabregas, I was struck by something he said quite often that I thought would have been useful in my more general composition courses too – research.  He used the word research many many times.  Here was a real writer talking about the many ways in which he does research on a daily basis as a reporter, and also how he had to do research not only on the content of his new book, but on how to publish it.

So it occurred to me, if you’re teaching students to write any sort of researched document, whether in a writing class or across the disciplines, bring in problem-solvers to talk about how they do things in the real world (outside of school).  I’ve often shown students my own blog, the one I wrote while doing my dissertation, and talked about how I did research for that project.  But that’s way out of the scope of what a first-year writer is thinking about, and I definitely see a lot of eyes glaze over and worried faces when I bring it up on the screen.  My own experience as a researcher isn’t interesting to them – they see it as part of my agenda to get them to do things they don’t want to do (of course, that is not my agenda, but they too often probably see it that way).

Instead, I’m thinking of people who work on smaller projects on a daily basis that require multiple avenues of research.  We all know people in a variety of fields – we should use our friends and colleagues to help our students.  I’m thinking this semester of having my friend who works in marketing come to my Comp 2 course to talk about the various ways she uses research to keep her company’s Facebook page updated with cutting-edge news.  I have another friend who works for an adoption agency, and I know that on a daily basis she uses professional research in social sciences to keep current in her field and also to help her solve problems that come up in her job.  The administrator at my son’s daycare does research on every day – in early childhood pedagogy, school administration, she interviews and meets with administrators from other schools, she does surveys of parents – this is all research.  More advanced students are also great resources – have some seniors come in and talk about the ways in which they’ve researched post-graduation opportunities (jobs, grad school, etc).  I think we’d find that they use much more than Google for these types of research (they probably go to the library for reference books, brochures, talk to friends, parents, advisors and career counselors – these are all sources for research).  Ask these students to talk about how the research skills they learned in college are helping them outside of college.

So here’s the take-away: have real researchers come to class to talk about their processes.  It’s one way to combat the ‘assignment-for-school/teacher-as-audience’ syndrome that comes along with a lot of researched writing assignments.  And, like it did for me with Luis, you never know what ideas you might get from it too.

Barbara Walvoord on Assessment and WAC

Today, I attended the New Vistas: WAC/WID Conference at Quinnipiac University (the meeting of the Northeast Writing Across the Curriculum Consortium).

Barbara Walvoord, one of the founding mothers of the WAC movement, gave the keynote address, “How to Assess and Improve Student Writing in Classrooms, Departments, and Institutions.”  Walvoord stressed three main elements of WAC Assessment –  Goals, Information, and Action.
Below are my notes from the talk.  I apologize for the strange bulleting, which occured as I converted my notes from Evernote to WordPress.
  • Retired from Notre Dame
  • Working on a book, Josey-Bass, same title as the talk
  • WAC/WID are different now than they were in the 70s and 80s when some programs were started
  • Now we have Assessment (capital A); a strong national higher education reform movement; has captured the attention of accreditation institutions, which places it outside of the institution (and they can force us to do it)
  • WAC is a reform movement in a sociological sense
  • Assessment has possibilities, but also causes alarm
  • Most useful question to ask: What do we need to work on?  Look at students’ work as they walk out the door [graduate] and see what you need to work on – it doesn’t really matter what they knew when they walked in the door – it matters what they know (or don’t know) when they walk out the door
  • GOALS, INFORMATION, ACTION (many programs get to wrapped up in data and then don’t act on it)
  • Articulate goals for student writing (these options below are broad, yet helpful – cannot be used exactly but can be adapted at the classroom and disciplinary level)
    • individual faculty, programs, department
    • Combat myths (like, writing = grammar)
  • Gather information (data)
    • Direct Assessment
      • Standardized tests
      • Readers score papers or portfolios
    • Indirect Assessment
      • Student self-report
      • Document use of instructor and/or student actions, beliefs, etc, that research has linked to learning (done by Pew, for example)
    • Direct assessment will be valued over indirect
    • e-portfolios “That is the way to the swamp”
    • Assessing writing across the curriculum
      • Keep purpose clear – what do I need to know and why?
      • Is this work valid at measuring what we’re trying to capture
      • Is it reliable? (you cannot have interdisciplinary faculty reading/scoring interdisciplinary work – no inter-rater reliability [80% is standard for publication])
  • Cannot mount a new program that will affect the results of standardized tests – it will not work!
  • What will work (by using standardized tests results) — (cites Stuart Greene’s longitudinal study of 25 students through 4 years at Notre Dame by collecting all of their writing — they wrote a report indicating that students were not doing enough writing and the writing wasn’t demanding enough — check into this)  (question for IUP – what do our NSSE reports say about student perceptions of writing?)
    • identify a specific problem
    • get people’s attention
    • focus resources
  • Draw on faculty members (Which learning goals are most difficult for your students?  Which should the institution work on?) — phrase questions to focus on students, not on what the faculty are/aren’t doing, to ask in a non-threatening way
  • What does it mean to “work on writing”
    • define it more narrowly? (grammar, source use, etc)
    • consult the literature; it tell us:
      • students develop as writers when they
        • believe that writing is important
        • believe they can learn to write effectively
        • use effective writing processes
        • write often with effective guidance
        • develop meta-cognition and strategies that encourage transfer
      • how do students develop as writers?  what methods can help them? –> your best chance of improving student writing is to make these things happen in as many classes as possible
  • Acting on the data
    • intensive work with faculty
    • institutional action (rewards, incentives, workload, freedom from punishment by student evaluations)
    • intensive work with student cultures
    • a system of reporting, aggregating, and disseminating results of actions
    • Actions are unlikely to change results on a national standardized test, but they CAN change student written products, processes, and attitudes in individual classes, major programs, gen ed program, etc
    • You then also have to assess the effects of the actions
  • Document the data by aggregating the action taken in smaller arenas (individual courses, programs, etc)
  • Assessment IS the driving force behind resurgence of WAC programs
  • Must have funding – need to have stipends to pay faculty to help do any sort of surveying of their students, to implement anything they learn in a WAC workshop, etc  (faculty development grants) – Institution needs to make improving student writing a priority

Make Words Count, Instead of Counting Words

Yesterday was the first day of what has been dubbed #AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month) on Twitter, and it’s gotten me thinking about word counts.  I’m an avid reader of PhD2Published‘s Dr. Charlotte Frost, and I think that there are many good reasons to participate in #AcWriMo.   To participate, an academic writer makes a goal to write a certain number of words per day or for the month of November, similar to #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) where writers pledge to write an entire novel in one month.  Some #AcWriMo writers are pledging to write by project instead of by word (so, for instance, they pledge to write a conference paper [my personal goal] or a thesis chapter by the end of the month), but many other participants have word count goals.

This probably works very well for advanced writers (many of the participants appear to be graduate students or teachers in higher ed), who may have trouble getting motivated to write, but once they get going they can really produce.  These same advanced writers most likely have fine-tuned revision processes, where they take the hundreds or thousands of words they’ve produced and edit them into polished and publishable prose.  These participants, if yesterday is any evidence of what’s to come, also have an ally in Frost who has been cheering on the academic writers through the Twitter stream.

Still, I wonder if using word counts as goals even for advanced writers is beneficial.  So I tweeted,

“Love the idea of #acwrimo but so many are measuring progress with word counts. Is there a way to make quality a goal instead of quantity?”

Frost responded,

“Sure, or measure the time you put in. We’re not anti-quality, we’re pro process! :-)”

And I think that’s the key  when approaching teaching writing to students.  #AcWriMo isn’t trying to be a model for students, and it really has nothing to do with teaching.  But it’s gotten me to think about the ways in which we approach assigning writing to our students. Often I see assignments asking students to write a certain number of words, and it always makes me cringe a bit.  The implication is that the quantity is more important than the process or the quality of the work.

Many teachers indicate length requirements for student assignments by providing word counts; my sense is that because our own writing in academia is often defined by word counts (most journals will set a word count for submissions), some teachers use that same approach with their students.  But our students, in most cases, aren’t striving to be professional academic writers.  I’ve always believed that providing a word count, or any length requirement for that matter, can send a dangerous message to students: you value quantity over quality.

I did early in my career provide page restrictions for student writing assignments; I did this because I was too inexperienced to trust my students that they would write “enough.”  But as I became more interested in Rhetorical Genre Studies, I came to realize that what matters more is that students make certain moves in their writing – that they meet the criteria of the genre and the rhetorical situation – not that they write a certain amount.

This can be a troubling concept for student writers.  When I present an assignment, the first question often is, “How long should it be?”  That is a perfect teachable moment – a great time to talk about genre and what the situation of the writing task calls for.  Depending on the assignment and the audience for the project, I ask a question back, “Well, if you were the President of the University receiving this report, how many examples would it take to persuade you?”  Or, “When you were a high school student, how much writing would you have wanted to read on a brochure?”

Since I’ve stopped providing length requirements for students, I’ve found that their work is more thorough and less redundant.  I don’t get a lot of questions like, “How do I get to the required length without repeating myself a hundred times?” or comments like, “I feel like I’m saying the same thing over and over.”  And even though some students find it unsettling, what’s more important is that the message is clear — what I value in their writing is not that they’ve reached a certain count of words.  I’m interested in how they’ve made those words count.

Are Samples Ideal?

When I’m asked what I do when students’ writing isn’t meeting my expectations or they’re not doing what I’ve hoped they would do, I’m often caught in a conundrum of sorts.  The easiest thing to say to faculty members who want to teach writing in their disciplines is that they should provide good models (samples) of what they’re looking for .  The harder thing to say to faculty who teach writing across the curriculum is that they need to negotiate between the students’ desire to write what/how they want and the teachers’ own desire for the student to write in a specific way.

In a very famous CCC article, Lil Brannon and C.H. Knoblauch caution writing teachers about the notion of an “ideal text” in responding to student writing.  Matt Ortoleva aptly summarizes, “when classroom teachers become fixated on a notion of the ‘Ideal Text,’ they take away the student writers’ authority to make their own choices about their writing. Brannon and Knoblach are clear about the potential harm: a reduced desire to communicate, a feeling of not having anything important to say, and a reduced desire to write.”  If we heed Brannon and Knoblach’s warning, then providing sample texts is the exact wrong thing to do.

But, for teachers with plenty of experience in teaching their disciplinary content but less experience in writing pedagogy, providing sample texts is often the easiest way for them to show students what they’re looking for.  So, here are a few ways teachers can provide sample documents in the genre they’re teaching, yet still avoid the message that there’s an ideal text they’re looking for.

1. Provide most of the samples from students, not professionals.  This sets appropriate expectations.  At a more advanced level, professional samples might make sense.  But generally, a professional sample should be one of many samples you show your students.  The majority should be samples by students with the same level of expertise in the discipline as them.

2. Provide multiple samples of how the assignment has been approached in different ways.  This sends the message that you’re looking for students to make their own choices about what makes an effective text, not that you have one idea about what the text should look like.  As I said in #1, a professional sample can be appropriate, but it should be one among many.

3. Don’t provide the most exemplary examples.  Instead, provide samples that are average.  Then, go through the sample with the students and have a discussion about the successful features of the text as well as what could make that sample better.  This gives the students some of the authority in deciding what could make the text ideal.

Collecting an array of samples can take time, and it’s something you can do as you begin to think about incorporating more writing assignments into your course.  One way to collect samples is to ask students if you may use their work in future classes as an example, anonymously of course.  If many faculty in your department do this, then you’ll have even more to choose from.  Nedra Reynolds suggests turning to the NCTE Gallery of Writing, a resource faculty in disciplines outside of English may not be familiar with; it contains writing from people in all sorts of disciplines and areas, academic and creative, professional and personal.  There are now also many anthologies of student writing, and there are writing textbooks that are discipline-specific and include student samples, such as Oxford UP’s Write Like a Chemist.

Git Grading Gone

When I tell people I teach writing, they often ask, “How do you get through all that grading?”  The implication seems to be that it must be awful, arduous, boring, painful both mentally and physically, (insert other derogatory terms here).  I usually say, “I really love reading student writing.”  This is true.  I don’t think you become a writing teacher unless you genuinely enjoy hearing/reading student voices.  But it doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to spend hours on end reading and responding to their work.   And, I realize that response doesn’t help faculty members in disciplines outside of English who might turn to me for tips on how to accomplish what can seem like a daunting task, especially when there’s probably little love there.  They might ask, “How do you get through all that grading,” but they really mean, “How do I get through all of my grading if I incorporate more writing into my class?”

Responding to student writing is a theoretical and pedagogical area that has for a long time been a large focus in composition studies.  A favorite and oft-cited work is Nancy Sommers’ “Responding to Student Writing” (CCC 33.2).  And while I’d love to recommend the article, as well as others in the area, I think that when most faculty ask me that question, they’re looking for some boiled down tips, not a theoretical discussion.  So, I present here, five tips for more efficient grading. Some of them are probably fairly obvious.  But they work for me, and I’ve been reading student writing for 12 years.  These tips can help, even if (or especially because) you don’t have the love.

1. Go to your happy place
I mean that literally.  Go somewhere you know you can get work done – your favorite coffee shop, the library, your office.  Wherever.  I absolutely cannot grade in my house. But if I go to a coffee shop, I can usually knock out a big batch of papers fairly quickly.

2. Multi-task
I don’t ever read more than five papers in a row.  I need a break to refresh.  For me, they blur together after five.  So I do other types of work at the same time.  I read five papers, then I make lesson plans for an hour.  I read five more papers, then I respond to email for twenty minutes.  Moving my mind around in various ways help me see all of the student writing as fresh.

3. Focus, focus, focus
I don’t mean to be focused.  I mean to focus only on the most important concerns you have in the writing.  I pick three or four things to comment on, and I limit myself to that.  For instance, my first-year students’ recently wrote arguments of definition as feature stories.  I looked for (1) how well they defined the concept, (2), how well they applied the definition and found examples of it, and (3) how well they met the criteria of a feature story.  That’s it.  You can’t look at everything if you have 50 papers to grade, and really, your students will be overwhelmed if you comment on too much.  So you look for what’s most important – fulfilling the criteria of your assignment, the objectives you want them to meet, the skills you want them to achieve – and comment on those (and only those!).

4. Timer
Set a stopwatch (on your iPhone clock app, of course) and read the first paper in the stack.  Did it take a lot longer than you expected?  Then set a timer (iPhone clock app, again) for the amount of time you think it should take you to read the paper, and read the next one.  Keep half an eye on that timer, and try to meet it.  You can do this without sacrificing the quality of your response.  All the timer is meant to do is keep you focused; you can’t daydream and your mind can’t wander if it doesn’t have time!

5. Do not edit
Unless you’re teaching basic writing, line editing is not your job.  I’m not saying that grammar isn’t important – of course it is.  But you’re not using your time wisely if you line edit.  Keep a list at the top of the first page of the student’s paper in which you list trends you see – run-on sentences, comma splices, tense agreement – but limit the list to three things.  Your student will find it overwhelming to see a list longer than that.  Tell your students to use the list to read-up in their handbooks, to go to the Writing Center, or to come see you during office hours.  This will take you a lot less time and will be more beneficial to your students than seeing marks all over their text.

Have some other quick tips for responding to student writing?  Please, leave a comment!